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Billy Bragg & Wilco have combined their talents on one of the most interesting and unusual releases of the year. Tribute albums are hot today but this is something in a class by itself. This isn’t a re-recording of classic songs, it’s a first-time recording of 15 of the thousand or so songs that Woody Guthrie wrote before his death but never recorded. Billy Bragg was approached by Woody’s daughter Nora and offered access to her father’s archives with the goal of putting some of his many unrecorded lyrics to music. Bragg accepted the challenge and realized that he needed a band to supplement his own sound. He enlisted Wilco and "Mermaid Avenue" was born.

The disc begins with "Walt Whitman’s Niece", "California Stars", and "Way Over Yonder In The Minor Key". Two things are immediately obvious, these aren’t Woody Guthrie’s throwaway tunes but are actually great lyrics, and the combination of Bragg & Wilco works great. Natalie Merchant is brought in to handle lead vocals on one acoustic track and also provides backing vocals on another. The quality of Woody’s lyrics is consistent throughout which leads one to wonder how many more gems are waiting to be recorded and whether or not there’ll be any future volumes along these lines.

For fans of both Billy Bragg and Wilco this disc represents a step up performance-wise and is essential to your music collection. For fans of Woody Guthrie, and folk music fans in general, this disc is an important addition because it represents the songs that could have been, including several that would have been among Woody’s classics. Sure, the purists out there will argue that Bragg & Wilco have given the songs a certain edge that Woody probably wouldn’t have at the time he wrote them, and yes the lyrics may have even been interpreted somewhat differently without the author around to explain their meanings, but the fact remains that this collection works on many levels. This release is excellent from start to finish and is on track to be one of the best releases this year.